Swamped Chapter 74 Page 20

You have a mess of questions. You try to figure out where to start as you lift yourself up onto the desert horse.

“So you’re apprentice to the Oracle of the Sands. What does that even mean? Why are we getting you and not this oracle straight off?”

“The Oracle has other duties. I am not permitted to explain them to outsiders. Rest assured, however, that when I say apprentice, I do not mean to suggest I am a novice; the Oracle started training me to take her place at a very young age.”

As if to drive home the point, Ember starts floating. Rider, meanwhile, has gathered up the meat and put it in a pouch, which he ties onto the rear hump.

“Okay. So what are you even doing here? When did you meet up with Rider, and why?”

“Not long ago,” Rider interjects, climbing up behind you. Once he’s seated, you start moving. “I found him because he guided my compass to him.”

“That’s because I realized you were looking for a gateway. And the Master’s group seems to have altered their plans – they haven’t made a new gateway in more than twelve hours. So I temporarily reactivated one near here.”

“Likely the one that brought me here in the first place, considering how close it is to here,” Rider adds.

“Okay, but why?”

“Because the Oracle believes we need to help each other. We can get into the details later, once everyone I need to explain things to is in one place.”

You’re annoyed about that, but it does make sense. Not like you haven’t had to wrangle a bunch of people in one place to get them all up to speed before.

“So what’s going on with these gateways anyhow? You’ve mentioned something about a Master having something to do with them?”

“It’s the only name we know to call him by. You may not have seen him in person, but you’ve surely seen his magic at work by now. He’s a very powerful wizard – even the Oracle thinks he might be able to overpower her in a direct confrontation. The gateways seem to be his work – though we think many of them aren’t actually deliberate.”

You look at him, confused.

“What do you mean, not deliberate?”

“From our observations, it seems that when the Master opens a gateway, some of the ether lingers. Eventually, that stray ether forms another gateway in a different place. We’re not sure if he’s just being careless, or if he’s decided the resulting chaos is helpful to his plans.”

“Stop here,” Rider suddenly says.

Oh, you’re at the rock already. Makes sense, it wasn’t that far off. You stop the desert horse and lift the rock up; Rider starts feeding the muckdiver meat to the croc, then points at the crystal.

“Ember, you’ve seen the necklace, and now this. What do you make of it?” he asks.

Ember stares at the crystal for a while, then suddenly shouts. “Oh! That’s why!”

“You care to run that by those of us who aren’t wizards?” you ask.

“Sorry. It’s the missing piece of what I just told you – about how the stray ether tends to form new gateways. Enchanted objects like these can, if properly set up, serve to draw in that ether so the gateway forms around it. So he knows about that side effect and is trying to make use of it.”

“But what if someone finds the object and moves it?”

“Or eats it, as the muckdiver did,” Rider adds.

“That is an obvious point of failure,” Ember agrees. “Perhaps these are meant for lower-priority targets. Or maybe it’s simply to prevent a stray gateway from opening somewhere unwanted.”

That still doesn’t seem quite right to you.

“These aren’t cheap trinkets, though. I found one earlier made by a master metalsmith. If they’re just a backup plan, why go to all that trouble? But if they’re important, why use things that can be easily moved?”

Ember shrugs.

“I won’t claim to have all the answers. I can only offer my best guesses. Are you done feeding that creature?”

“Just about,” Rider says. “When this is sorted out, however, I would like your help in getting her back to the swamp.”

“I’ll do what I can. But for now, we should get moving again so we can help your comrades.”

Rider finishes up, and you start riding out again. You’ve got time to ask some more questions, though.

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What is this Master trying to accomplish? Why is this all happening now? The Marshguards and Swampknights have been fighting in the swamp for years. Were your factions even meant to get involved?